Monique Keiran: Things are really looking up at Cattle Point

Today is International Astronomy Day. While amateur astronomers around the world will spend the day and evening extolling and exploring the wonders of the night sky, Victoria’s chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has additional reason to celebrate. After a year of planning, the society and the municipality of Oak Bay have designated Cattle Point as the first urban star park in western Canada.

Star parks conserve and promote dark skies and the ability to see the stars. They form part of an international initiative to draw awareness to light pollution and its effects on health and quality of life. Star parks in urban areas are rare, due to nearby city lights.

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Canada’s only other urban star park is in Saint John, N.B. Canada’s 14 other dark-sky preserves are found in rural or wilderness areas.

“We’re lucky here,” says Mark Bohlman, who leads the Victoria initiative. “We can see the stars when the weather’s good. There are very few other places in North American cities where you can see the Milky Way.”

Time was, only weather and glow or smoke from occasional forest fires obscured Island residents’ view of the stars.

Fast-forward thousands of years to when Europeans sailed up the coast, and even navigators James Cook and George Vancouver set their courses by the North Star.

More recently, the south Island’s crystalline night skies prompted astrophysicist John Stanley Plaskett to select Little Saanich Mountain in 1914 as the site of the renowned Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, which went on to map the Milky Way.

Today, Greater Victoria residents are more fortunate than denizens of other nearby cities. Some of us are blessed with starry views outside our doors, while others need drive only short distances to gaze at the stars above. Meanwhile, urban glow blights the skies above Metro Vancouver, Seattle and elsewhere along the Pacific Coast.

But, Bohlman says, Cattle Point is special. During the last few years, the astronomy society measured and mapped light pollution throughout the region. Cattle Point scored well. With lightless Haro Strait to the east, dimly lit Uplands to the west, and downright-dark Ten Mile Point to the north, the five-hectare site off Beach Drive seemed a ready-made urban star park.

Factor in the site’s accessibility and facilities, including public parking, and Cattle Point was a no-brainer for the designation.

Tara Ney, the municipal councillor who sits on Oak Bay’s parks and recreation committee, says little was required to get the municipality on board for the designation. “It enhances what Oak Bay has already worked hard to preserve at Cattle Point and in Uplands Park,” she says. “It extends our core vision for the park’s landscape right up to the sky.”

The designation barely affects Cattle Point’s fragile ecosystem or its neighbours. The park has two lights to guide boaters during night-time emergencies. At the request of the society, Oak Bay changed the hoods on the lights to direct their beams groundward to protect the site’s sky viewing.

Interpretive signs about the star-park designation and light pollution will be erected, and the local astronomy society will continue its two-decade tradition of hosting night-sky viewing and other public outreach at the point.

For instance, last June, when society members set up telescopes at the park and invited the public to come witness the planet Venus crossing the face of the sun — an event not to re-occur for another century — 200 people showed up for the occasion.

Bohlman says the society’s usual evening events draw about 30 people.

Society members also teach astronomy-related workshops through Oak Bay’s Monterey Centre and other community centres. For International Astronomy Day, they’ve scheduled activities and sky viewing at the university’s 32-inch telescope.

To see how your neighbourhood ranks for night-sky viewing or to take part in this year’s International Astronomy Day, visit www.victoria.rasc.ca.

To marvel at the Milky Way, visit Cattle Point on a clear night and look up. Look way, way up.

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